Youth Labor and the Paradoxes of the Digital Economy

Since she was a sixteen, Mariand Castrejon has been producing videos in Spanish about beauty and lifestye, and sharing them on YouTube. Today, at the age of 25, this Mexican young woman from Cuernavaca that goes by the name of Yuya, has more than 22 million of subscribers on her YouTube channel. In her videos she might give beauty and fashion tips (hair style, make-up),  talk about her travels, or discuss aspects of her everyday life such as how she decorates her bedroom. Besides earning millions of followers on YouTube, Instagram (13.1M),  Twitter (10.6M), and Facebook (12.9M), and global recognition, Mariand has also been able to earn money through collaborations with major fashion and beauty brands, the YouTube advertisement program, and publishing books (Los secretos de Yuya, 2014; Las confesiones de Yuya, 2015). According to some industry estimations, in 2015 she was one of the better paid YouTubers with monthly earnings of $41,475 dollars.

Many young people around the world, particularly the ones with access to technology, skills, and motivations, are participating in the digital economy. That is, the economy that has resulted from the evolution of the Internet, the digitization of the majority of public and private sectors, and the consolidation of an ecosystem of online platforms and services. While few youths manage to achieve the level of success that social media influencers like Yuya have – creating a famous personal brand, cultivating a large audience, and earning thousands of dollars a month- many are participating in the digital economy, producing, circulating, and consuming content on social media platforms, and generating data as users of a variety of web services. Youths around the world, with different degrees of engagement and access, are spending time and energy on their activities online, erasing the boundaries that separate labor, play, and leisure, actively creating value for goods and services. As the most active demographic group on the Internet young people is a sort of invisible workforce which labor is usually unpaid and unrecognized although it contributes greatly to the digital economy in terms of creativity, data, and energy,

Studying how youth participate in this economy can help us understand how the dispositions and mindsets of youth are changing as they grow up immersed in an online platform ecosystem that is based on surveillance and advertising,  and how digital inequalities evolve in complex with the rapid pace of technological change. These and other related topics are at the core of the Youth and the Digital Economy project, a collaboration between the Berkman Klein Center’s Youth and Media team, and the Nordic Center for Internet and Society at the Norwegian Business School. As part of this project we have been exploring the role of youth as economic actors, their motivations to participate, and how they might be developing a particular kind of entrepreneurial mindset. So far we have produced three in-depth essays: one about the different forms of capital (cultural, social, economic) youth can gain through their digital practices; other about collaboration and teamwork online; and another one about the phenomenon known as “aspirational” or “hope” labor. Next week I will join other members of our team at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Paris, to discuss some of our early findings. Our round table “Emerging Youth Practices and the Digital Economy” is scheduled for Monday November 12, 9:00-10:30, at the Salle VIII, UNESCO building.

Youth Ambiguous Position in Digital Capitalism: Producers, Consumers, Users, and Products

Youth are among the most active consumers and producers of digital content. They are “prosumers,” that is, hybrids of consumers and producers living in late capitalist societies. For instance, youth with access to the tools, and services offered for free by corporate online platforms, actively produce, and circulate digital content. On YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and a couple of other for-profit platforms, young prosumers play a crucial role filling digital spaces with with their social interactions and creative expressions, bringing the platforms to life. By carving out digital paces for creativity and sociability on corporate platforms, youth have helped to co-create a youth digital culture that is dynamic, and expands across several niches.

Moreover, as prosumers youths are also users that generate huge amounts of personal data. This data is traced, collected, and analyzed  by corporate online platforms following a business model that is based on surveillance and advertising. The data that is harvested and mined helps platforms to create consumer profiles that are used for marketing purposes and targeted advertising. Under such model, young prosumers are not only users of platforms and producers and consumers of digital content, but are also products, products that corporations sell to advertisers and marketers.

Youth Digital Labor: Free, Aspirational, and Immaterial.

When looking at the activities that young prosumers pursue on corporate platforms, and the amount of time and energy they spent doing them, it is critical to ask questions about labor and work. Who benefits from the work youth do on Internet platforms? Can we consider those activities a form of labor?

Although youth Internet practices have been examined in relation to culture, civic engagement, learning, and literacy, we know very little about their relation to the economy. One of the critical aspects of  digital capitalism is precisely the ability to make certain kinds of labor invisible, and to erase the boundaries between the spheres of play, leisure, and work. While youth play, socialize, and communicate on corporate digital platforms they are adding value not only to the cultural goods they consume and share, but also to the platforms themselves. To a certain extent, it can be argued that they are doing unpaid work. Several critical scholars have argued since the early days of the web 2.0 that the online activities of users are a form of “free labor,” unpaid work that is exploited by social media platforms (Andrejevic, 2009; Scholz, 2012; Terranova, 2000, 2004).

Sometimes understood as a labor of love, pursued by amateurs driven by passion and desire to participate in particular communities; other times conceptualized as aspirational labor (Duffy 2015, 2017),  full of hope and pursued with uncertainty of future outcome,  with the promise of some sort of reward; digital work performed on social media platforms such as the production of user generated content is usually unpaid, precarious, and reveals the conditions of insecurity and risk of the current state of capitalism and (post)modernity. Moreover, this kind of labor also shows the pervasiveness of a neoliberal ideology in which freedom is celebrated as a narrative of success even though it means lack of social security for the workers, short-term contracts, and absence of clear career pathways.

Because the value it creates comes from affective, cultural, and cognitive activities such as sharing, liking, commenting, and content creation, youth digital work can also be considered a form of “immaterial labor.” According to Maurizio Lazzarato (1996), immaterial labor “is the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity.”  Common in post-industrial capitalist economies, this kind of labor evolves in opposition to manual labor, and requires intellectual and communication skills. It combines creativity, imagination, and technical competencies, with entrepreneurial skills and social relations management. Immaterial labor produces “social relationships” (a relationship of innovation, production, and consumption). As Lazzarato explains,

“The role of immaterial labor is to promote continual innovation in the forms and conditions of communication (and thus in work and consumption). It gives form to and materializes needs, the imaginary, consumer tastes, and so forth, and these products in turn become powerful producers of needs, images, and tastes. The particularity of the commodity produced through immaterial labor (its essential use value being given by its value as informational and cultural content) consists in the fact that it is not destroyed in the act of consumption, but rather it enlarges, transforms, and creates the “ideological” and cultural environment of the consumer.”

Confronting the Paradoxes

The current platform ecosystem dominated by big corporations, and driven by a surveillance and advertisement business model has a political economy full of paradoxes, inequalities, and power imbalances. Youths around the world, as of active participants of the digital economy confront have to confront the paradoxes from an ambiguous position of power. On the one hand, the digital ecosystem promotes youth engagement with content and services, opening opportunities for earning different forms of capital (social, cultural, financial), and developing a range of technical and socioemotional skills. Using such skills and resources, youth have gained agency, carved out spaces, build communities, experimented with identities, and raised their voice.

On the other hand, the digital ecosystem and economy also positions many youth as immaterial  and aspirational workers — unpaid contributors to the production of data and content that is exploited for corporate profit. Although the narratives of young social media influencers are promoted by mainstream media as examples of success in the digital economy, the opportunities of becoming a famous youtuber, instagrammer, or blogger are fewer. These opportunities, furthermore are usually shaped by structural inequalities of gender, race, and socioeconomic status that determine access to different kinds of resources and capitals.

Although the digital economy empowers youth as entrepreneurs, celebrates independence and individual success, and promotes a neoliberal discourse of freedom,  it is also normalizing precarious conditions of labor in which job security is scarce, career pathways are obfuscated, and creative work is not remunerated. Youths around the world confront the paradoxes of such economy from different positions of power according to their local contexts and demographic characteristics. Especially for the ones located in the Global South, navigating those paradoxes require the solidarity and help from all sectors of the society, particularly local governments, civil society, and business. As youths become more conscious and critical of their role in the digital economy, start to recognize their labor, and begin to organize and express solidarity with other youths, it is possible that fairer conditions of labor would emerge.




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